Troy Bayliss on his Ducati Xerox machine is now firmly in the position of champion elect but he still has a little work to do at the magnificent Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari to land his second World Superbike crown.
The 4.959km circuit is situated just a few junctions down the A14 Autostrada from Ducati's home base of Borgo Panigale, Bologna, and it was at this venue in 2002 that Bayliss had to give best in the championship fight to Honda rider Colin Edwards, in the final round of the championship. This time around Bayliss is the one very much in the driving seat, even before first practice begins on Friday morning.
Only two riders have a mathematical chance of preventing Bayliss from being crowned champion at Imola, second place rider Noriyuki Haga riding for the Yamaha Motor Italia team and third place man James Toseland on the Winston Ten Kate Honda. Each has found a rich seam of podium form in recent races, and will no doubt provide fireworks of the brightest intensity in Italy, as they fight not only Bayliss, but each other, in their attempt to guarantee second in the championship struggle.
They have to rely on a serious streak of misfortune afflicting Bayliss to hope to prevent the ten-times race winner in 2006 from leaving Imola with the SBK Championship trophy, but with only six points between Haga and Toseland, the fight for second is expected to go all the way to the wire in the final round in Magny-Cours, next weekend.
With 100 points left for any single rider who wins all four remaining races, Bayliss is 87 points up on Haga and 93 ahead of Toseland.
The undulations, fast corners and chicanes of Imola never cease to provide dramatic backdrops for the latter stages of any SBK season, but with many further alterations planned for the track over the winter; this year's event may now take on a particularly important historical mantle. It will be a poignant race for all the Italian fans, who will have their final chance to see one of their undisputed heroes, Pierfrancesco Chili riding for DFX Treme Honda, race in front of a home crowd in SBK. The 42-year-old, with strong personal and family ties to the local Emilia-Romagna area, is sure to get a rousing send off, having already taken part in more SBK races than any other rider - 274 pre-Imola.
The city centre venue of Imola has hosted five previous SBK rounds, and in terms of riders still current in SBK racing, two have won races before - Ruben Xaus and Regis Laconi, who have scored a remarkable three Imola wins each. Xaus on the Sterilgarda Berik Ducati and Laconi riding the PSG-1 Kawasaki Corse were on twin-cylinder machinery when they took their wins, with Ducatis powering them home to five of the races victories, and Laconi scoring his lone win for Aprilia in 2001, on an RSV Mille.
Last year, weather conditions saw to it that there was only one individual Imola race, instead of the normal two, and Chris Vermeulen on the Winston Ten Kate Honda, won the race, but lost the championship to this season's outgoing number one plate holder, Troy Corser on his Alstare Suzuki Corona Extra.
Corser and his compatriot Andrew Pitt on the Yamaha Motor Italia bike enter the Imola round split by only a point in the championship table, and with each more than 50 points behind Toseland in third, they may realistically be fighting for fourth place. That will do little to dampen the competitive spirit of each of the ever-combative Aussie duo, as they also have a third rider in the hunt for a top four championship finish - and maybe even a fourth. Alex Barros riding the Klaffi Honda CBR1000RR is only 24 points behind Pitt, and the Brazilian star sees Imola as a place at which he can really challenge for podiums, after a season of highs and lows.
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